Rarely does a whole neighborhood have a monthly rhythm to it the way the DTES does. For most residents of the DTES, their entire month is structured around today, welfare Wednesday, or as most residents call it, “cheque day.” If it’s not cheque day, they’re living in the two weeks after it, spending the money, or in the two weeks before it, longing for it to arrive. This is the ebb and flow of the neighborhood.
Many of my friends will stand in line for a cheque today. If they are housed in one of the SROs (the bottom rung of housing in Vancouver), they will receive the little that is left after their rent is deducted. This amounts to about $6-7 a day for a single adult. This doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t. It’s even less when you’re in a cycle of addiction, and every cheque day presents another irresistible opportunity to spend all of your money feeding those cravings and numbing the pain (or paying back the debts you owe to the people who have funded your addiction since last cheque day).
Yes, the welfare system helps many people survive. But it also keeps many people poor, poor in every way. The only social role of someone on welfare is that of a passive recipient. In fact, even if they want to use their skills and gifts to help their communities, unless they are on disability, they cannot earn a dollar without that dollar being removed from their welfare cheque – in other words, a tax of 100% on earned income. BC is the only province in Canada that does not allow welfare recipients to keep some of the money they earn.
So my DTES friends are disempowered from reciprocally contributing to the well-being of the community and the city. They are denied the dignity of offering something. Their gifts and abilities are wasted, and they lose hope. Many of them develop a “taking” mentality, a sense of entitlement that can poison their worldview. And on the other side of the city, working taxpayers develop either a smug satisfaction in “helping the needy” through the welfare system, or a deep resentment toward the “lazy” people who are using their tax dollars to feed their addictions. None of this brings the rich and the poor any closer into relationship with each other, which I believe is the only way both the rich and the poor will feel loved enough and have enough hope to break out of addiction patterns, and to live more whole lives.
The system isn’t working. So today, I’m fasting.
I’m fasting to participate, in a backwards sort of way, in the monthly rhythm of a neighborhood I love, to acknowledge the hard realities and pray about how they are playing out the lives of my friends.
I’m fasting to stand in solidarity and experience a bit of the hunger many of my friends on the DTES have felt and continue to feel, hunger not only for good food, but for love, healing, freedom and belonging – hungers we all share as flesh-and-blood humans.
I’m fasting to remind myself of what it feels like to crave something, to get just a small taste of the cravings of my addicted friends, who face so much temptation today.
I’m fasting to remind myself that I’m only a community and a life-crisis away from being on welfare myself, that I’m only one pain-numbing attempt away from becoming an addict.
I’m fasting to remember that throwing money at people is not the same thing as being in relationship with people and supporting people face-to-face, life-on-life. We are all impoverished when we remain separate from one another.
I’m fasting to ask myself how I can become weak, how I can lay down my power, so that those who are now weak and oppressed can be empowered to take leadership and dream big dreams for their neighborhood.
I’m fasting because the welfare system is not helping anyone “fare” well, and it is a symbol of the ongoing class division and deep injustice in our cities.
I’m fasting to name the systems that keep my friends in bondage, and to pray for their freedom. In sum, I’m fasting to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6).
If you have a heart for Vancouver and you long for justice, if you long to see the Kingdom of God break through, in the lives of both the poor and the rich, I invite you to join me in fasting and praying for justice on Welfare Wednesdays. Here are the rest of the dates for 2010:
Let me know if you want to join me in this – it would be good to know we’re in it together, and maybe we can even get together and pray on one of those days.